Things are pretty bad right now, so bad in fact that a truly staggering number of people have made a bleak, violent psychological thriller their preferred form of escapism. Squid Game, the new South Korean TV series, may wind up as Netflix’s “biggest show ever” and is already its most popular non-English offering. It’s the brainchild of writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk and stars Lee Jung-jae, Park Hae-soo, and HoYeon Jung as desperate people on the margins of society who volunteer to compete in a series of deadly children’s games overseen for a prize of ₩45.6 billion ($38.7 million).
The show is a sharp-toothed critique of capitalism, showing the desperate things people will do in the face of crippling debt. Through six rounds of games like Red Light, Green Light, Tug of War, and the titular squid game (which Hwang played in his youth and said is the best analogy for “modern competitive society”), those who fail are eliminated, and the pool of money for the remaining players grows larger.
Squid Game has earned high praise from critics, but also a slew of comparisons to both dystopian survival films like Hunger Games and Battle Royale, as well as social satires like Parasite and Sorry to Bother You. The deluge of “It’s like X meets Y!” comments have frustrated Hwang, who spoke to Variety about wanting to make a show that captured how he might feel if he were participating in something like this.
“I wanted to write a story that was an allegory or fable about modern capitalist society, something that depicts an extreme competition, somewhat like the extreme competition of life. But I wanted it to use the kind of characters we’ve all met in real life,” Hwang explained. “As a survival game it is entertainment and human drama.”
The most cunning, gut-wrenching twist in the show is what sets it apart from many of those similarly-themed flicks. In “Hell,” Squid Game’s second episode, it’s revealed that the players can leave the game if a simple majority of them vote to do so. But after a 101-100 margin sends them back to their grim day-to-day realities, the majority of them choose to return to the competition for a chance at life-changing money over suffering the indignities of poverty.
“Where am I supposed to go?” one character laments to the group. “Out there, I don’t stand a chance. “I do in here.”
Squid Game’s indictment of the rat race–not just how it leaves many people behind, but dehumanizes those who succeed–is the latest in a line of powerful works by Hwang tackling substantive societal issues. His first feature, My Father, was about a young soldier’s relationship with his biological father, a convicted murderer who is on death row. His second film, The Crucible, was inspired by the real-life sexual abuse teachers at a deaf school did to students. It sparked massive outrage in South Korea, earned a ton of money at the box office, and inspired the government to abolish a statute of limitations for sexual crimes against minors and disabled people.
The lead performances and first-rate set design elevate Squid Game over uninspired dystopian fare (the show really exposes limp, effects-fueled bores like Mortal Engines or the 2017 adaptation of Ghost in the Shell). Lee Jung-jae’s sweet-natured, perpetually childish Seong Gi-hun is a perfect avatar for the audience in this brutal world, while Park Hae-soo plates Cho Sang-woo with a quiet dignity that starts to unravel as the stakes ratchet up.